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University Theatre opening timely play, delivers unflinching look at the ramifications of slavery

Monday, October 16, 2017

LAWRENCE — Weaving together gods and myths from different cultures and times in a distinctively American tapestry, “…And Jesus Moonwalk the Mississippi” is a genre-defying play examining the repercussions wrought by slavery on African-American people and the unity of the country as a whole.

“…And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” opens Friday, Oct. 20, at the University of Kansas University Theatre. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20-21 and Oct. 27-28 and at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 22 and Oct. 29 in the Crafton-Preyer Theatre at Murphy Hall. Hailing from New York City, Kevin Vavasseur is the production’s guest director.

“My interpretation of the playwright’s fundamental message is this is what the quilt of America’s past looks like: violence, degradation, success at the expense of another. However, the quilt continues to be fashioned,” he said. “Will the patch of quilt you contribute be one of continued violence and disregard of human life, or will you add a patch that reflects human dignity, inclusion and a peaceful world? You have a choice.”

Vavasseur thinks KU Theatre is courageous for championing a production of this play. “…And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” — the language, characters and symbolism — asks audience members to reconsider their assumptions of traditional format and characters. Marcus Gardley, the play’s critically acclaimed writer, takes stock characters, such as the House Negro, the runaway slave and the Southern belle, and turns them on their respective ears.

“‘Jesus Moonwalks’ shows the humans beneath the stock portraits we’ve seen over and over again and uses them as metaphors to examine the effects of slavery, particularly on African-Americans,” Vavasseur said. “With the current social climate of the nation, the timing seems right for the entire country to engage in the conversation this play generates.”

This play contains explicit language and dialect, including the use of racist language and disturbing imagery. While this material might be challenging, Vavasseur believes it’s perfect for students while they are determining their individual identities and belief systems.

“They are the future leaders who will be positioned one day to change these societal ills that have plagued earlier generations,” he said, adding that the dynamics the play addresses are still very much alive today. He hopes audiences will leave empowered and ready to take action to create a peaceful,, inclusive nation.

The company includes Mija Jones, Kansas City junior, as Free Girl; Hannah Finch, Round Lake Beach, Illinois, junior, as Blanche Verse; Victoria Kilkenny, Shawnee senior, as Cadence Marie Verse; Jake Gillespie, Paola sophomore, as Jean Verse; Tinashe Muyoki, Dickinson, North Dakota, junior, as Damascus/Demeter; Ty Skillman, Burlington sophomore, as Yankee Pot Roast; Dominique Waller, Shawnee sophomore, as Jesus/The Great Tree; Ayzia Denei Underwood, Greenwood Village, Colorado, junior, as Po’em; Lexey Jost, Lawrence graduate student, costume designer; and Martha Keslar, Lawrence senior and Free State High School alumna, stage manager.

The production features several guest artists: Kim Griddine, Kansas City, as Miss Ssippi; Jordan Michael Grant, Chicago KU Theatre alumnus, as Brer Bit; and Matt Schwader, Kansas City, fight choreographer.

The production also features Kelly Vogel, resident artist and academic associate, scenic designer; Ann Sitzman, technical coordinator, lighting designer; Jane Barnette, assistant theatre professor, dramaturg, and Ryan McCall, musical director and accompanist, composer/musical director.

Vavasseur is a director, actor and writer whose credits include work at Highways Performance Space, The Theater @ Boston Court, Company of Angels, Los Angeles Theater Center, Shakespeare & Company, Edinburgh International Festival, New York International Fringe Festival and London Shakespeare Studio. An NAACP Image, GLAAD Media and LADCC Award nominee for acting, he is a Lincoln Center Directors' Lab alumnus and a Stage Directors and Choreographers Union associate member.

He has also worked in film and television production, including a variety of positions at Sony Pictures Entertainment. During this time, he worked on feature films including “Men in Black,” “Air Force One,” “Bad Boys” and “The Cable Guy.” In 2016, he completed a master’s degree at the New York University Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

Tickets for “…And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” are on sale now at KU ticket offices and online at www.kutheatre.com. Tickets are also available by calling the University Theatre, 785-864-3982, and the Lied Center, 785-864-ARTS. Tickets are $20 for adults, $19 for senior citizens and KU faculty and staff, and $10 in advance, $15 at the door for KU students.

The Department of Theatre is one of four departments in the School of the Arts. As part of the KU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the School of the Arts offers fresh possibilities for collaboration between the arts and the humanities, sciences, social sciences, international and interdisciplinary studies.

For more information on the Department of Theatre, visit www.theatre.ku.edu. For more information on the University Theatre, visit KUTheatre.com. Follow KU Theatre on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.